Feelings into words: Harvest Festival Part 2

Read part one here.

Describing, in words, what it’s like to be at a rave is one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do for my research. How can one possibly describe what it feels like to be there, in the moment? The unbounded ego loss, the embodied sensations, the immediacy of the act—by its very nature, the meaning of the experience is lost in any attempt to translate it into text.

It’s as it should be, really. The space in which we live our daily lives is one in which everything we do and see and think is translated into language. Language is the only means we have of shortening the distance between each other, that maddening asymptote at the root of all human conflict and knowledge and love. If coming together to dance is one of the ways we manage to climb out of that mediated space, out of our heads, our worlds constantly defined and categorized and re-defined and re-categorized, over and over—then this liminal experience being impossible to truly put into words is what makes it so special.

But it sure as hell makes it difficult to write a thesis on it.

Crystal 6

So there we were, dancing in the Crystal 6 tent at Harvest Festival. This was it, the culmination of weeks of preparation and hours of driving and money and excitement and hassle and anticipation. Dirty Decibels were on stage, killing it as always, and we lost ourselves in the beat. Our collective movements were punctuated by those delightful, individual moments of weirdness and joy that are unique to these types of gatherings. At one point I discovered that the person whose homemade LED-lined suit I had been admiring earlier in the night was an old friend I’d known since childhood but not seen in a decade. At another point, I tried on a friend’s kaleidoscope glasses, which were so ridiculously intense in that environment that it took me a good few minutes to come back down to earth after the experience.

But mostly, I danced. We danced. Sharing the space, the sound, smiles, water, we vibrated inside a transcendent cloud of music as millions have before us and will long after we’re gone in one long continuum of human experience. Under lasers and smoke and what looked like gigantic pink Fleshlights suspended from the ceiling, we danced.

* * *

After a few hours, the Crash tent began calling my name. I’d been hearing cryptic rumours all day about something extraordinary waiting inside the mythical psytrance tent. Diego, Erica, Dave, Zach and I got into a huddle. We knew that if we didn’t make an effort to check it out now, we risked getting stuck in the dancing equivalent of an ass-groove on the couch and never leaving Crystal 6 at all. So, like toddlers about to play in the snow, we bundled and layered up for the cold trek down the hill.

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Moving shapes and distractions passed by on either side as, on autopilot, my vision stuck to the familiar pattern of the front-back-side-to-side world of eggshell-white ceilings and hallways. By chance, though, I looked up. And the sky exploded above me.

My breath caught in the cold air as we all stopped to stare up at the magnificent cathedral of stars that the city hides from us year-round. Here was yet another one of those indescribably magical moments where my communication medium of choice can do nothing but yield to the power of my second favourite, photos. But of course, photos need to be captured in the moment. And it was too cold for that. So, resolving to postpone serious photographic exploration until next year, on we went.

If the sum of the earth’s beauty is a double sided coin of the greatest treasures that both nature and humanity have to offer (under, of course, the debateable assumption that these are separate spheres), stepping into the Crash tent after that natural display was like getting immediately punched in the face by the other side of the coin. I mean, holy shit.

I spotted my friend Daniel, who stood a head above everyone else. He was not surprised by my flabbergasted reaction. “People walk into this tent and are either blown away and fall in love, or look as if they just witnessed a horrific beating,” he told me with a grin. “There’s not a lot of reactions in between.”

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Psytrance Squid had a fun time at the glowstick factory.

We got lost in a time vortex. I spent an unknowable amount of time staring at the wall of meticulously crafted string art alone. This was the most ridiculous place I’d ever been inside. Blacklights and artwork and some sort of enormous alien vortex hanging above us that looked like a giant squid broke into a glowstick factory owned by Timothy Leary. The five of us who went in thought we’d be there for just a couple minutes. But we couldn’t look away. We staggered out 45 minutes later still unable to entirely comprehend what we just saw. We walked back up the hill, carrying the fortunes from cookies we’d been given by a random stranger, and blinking through the neon shine leftover in our fields of vision.

Then, just because, Aurora fucking Borealis happened. Out of nowhere. In the sky. So, there was that.

I mean, you can’t make this stuff up.

* * *

We decided it was high time to finally head to the Pyramid. Bundling up once more, we wove our way out past the ping-pong table and ran into Bobby, a friend who works on the sound crew. He was carrying a shovel and looked exhausted but cheerful. “I’ve been digging trenches for power cables for the past two hours,” he sighed, wiping his forehead. Of course we hadn’t even noticed the hardworking people in the background of the event, making sure everything went smoothly. We just took for granted that everything seemed to magically work out. I gave him a hug and thanked him for doing what he did.

“This is a world-class festival,” said Zach, as we looked out over the multicoloured river. “Justin is a visionary.”

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Afterwards, I talked to Daniel, one of my go-to people for answers to complex questions about the scene in Toronto, about how on earth a thing like this exists. “I could literally talk for hours about what makes that event so special and spectacular,” he told me. “But it boils down to this: incredible achievements are possible if nobody is trying to take credit for them.”

I’d still like to hear more about WHY they do it,” I asked him. I thought about the other, bigger, more commercial festivals I’d been to. “It seems obvious of course, but it’s really pretty amazing to resist the temptation to allow monetization to just chip away at the thing.”

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand the ‘why’ you speak of—it is there, and not something easily explained in a few words,” he replied. “But it is a ‘why’ that speaks to the inherent good that is possible with humans if we accept that each of us mean well, but have weaknesses that we are both honest to others about and, more importantly, with ourselves about.”

“It seems so difficult to really not be cynical about it. It feels too good to be true,” I admitted to him. “We’re like wounded puppies that have been beaten so much by unbridled consumerism and the invisible hand of the market that we don’t recognize the warm, loving hand of actual, no-fine-print-or-hidden-catches human positivity.”

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“I’ve told the organizers of Breakandenter and Boxofkittens, Harvest Festival, Justin, who continues to be a good friend to this day, and Bobby who now works for him, Dave, Irving, this whole circle of organizers—guys, I’m a better human being as a result of what you’ve done.”

* * *

At the Pyramid, finally, I had my first experience hearing a well-known DJ named Medicineman, and his (along with Dirty Decibels) was my favourite set of the weekend. It blew me away and kept me dancing despite the creeping fatigue setting in. Still, the frequency of breaks I was needing to be able to keep going was steadily increasing. The Crystal 6 tent where we’d spent most of our time did not have any seating—the one thing I would have changed about the setup—a fact which I was feeling in my legs hours later. At one point I sat down on a leather couch next to a man in a steampunk outfit. The smile I gave him turned to a frown of deep, deep disappointment as I realised that I’d sat down squarely in a freezing cold puddle of water. But it all worked out, as his sympathy turned into a long conversation about salsa dancing—he was an instructor—and relationships.

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I went outside and watched the sun come up as I peed on the grass at the edge of some trees, revelling in the glory of not using a portapotty, one of life’s little joys. As the last of our dance-generated body warmth began to fade, we finally gathered up our things and went back to the tent to add more layers on before the final leg of the journey—one last trip to the Screaming Heads.

Leaning up against the monument in the weak, misty sunlight, I reflected on all the tiny little moments that come together to make a weekend like this so unforgettable. Sharing a chat over the fire of a warming barrel. Seeing the joy on someone else’s face and feeling it through them. Saying you wish you had something and the other person has it on them at exactly that moment. Or telling someone you need something and they end up going way out of their way to get it for you (thanks for the batteries, Brad). Sharing a pee in the woods with a stranger, squatting and bonding. Walking by dozens, hundreds of unique, fascinating individuals, who each one you could spend a lifetime getting to know and it wouldn’t be enough—like the most contented-looking man in history stroking a fox-fur around his shoulders, or the guy in the purple wig and “Peanut-Free Elephant” sign—the many strangers-turned-friends you end up recognizing at events all the time. The Wizard making you sing Bird is the Word as you cross the river. (It didn’t work out very well but it was funny.) Shared water at just the right moment. Surprise hugs from behind. Exchanging smiles with a stranger who you know, as far as it is possible to know the inside of another person’s experience, is feeling the same way you are.

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Photo Credit: Cory Richardson.

That moment in your tent when your head finally hits the balled-up sweater that is your pillow, and all you can do is dream, wide awake, as reality converges on half-asleep fantasies and you drift blissfully in between, not caring about sleep because when life is that sweet you can’t tell the difference, and it doesn’t matter.

* * *

There was a beautiful five-second period between when I woke up and when the morning tent-sweats hit me. Had we been teleported to the surface of Mercury? No, the sun had just turned our tent into an orange dome of FIRE.

I staggered out, opened the cooler and began stuffing my face with grapes. I overheard a conversation just ahead of me that I was intrigued by, and wandered over to join in. It was indeed a very fascinating conversation. And I would very much love to tell you about it. However, I can’t. I can’t talk about something which is an integral part of the experience of these precious spaces for many people. Because no matter how looming or far away it seems from moment to moment, we live under the constant threat of having everything taken away from us due to stigma- and fear-based legislation and moral scapegoating.

And it makes me angry. It should make you angry too. This bullshit needs to end.

My conversation with this intelligent, fascinating person eventually turned, somehow (ahem, so weird how this happens when I’m around), to the topic of capitalism and wealth disparity. Floating on a cloud of unshakeable post-dancing contentment as I was, I think it was the first time that I’ve been able to calmly converse with someone who believes that “Having ten times more stuff comes from doing ten times more stuff,” and “wealth comes from adding value to the world”, while maintaining a straight face and completely open mind. Maybe money does make you a better person. Maybe you can save the fucking spotted owl with money. Who knows. Anything is possible.

Cough.

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Diego and I decided to go for a quick walk around. We followed the sound of raucous music coming from the Pyramid and ended up at the ferry. A few naked bodies were swimming in the water, and I wished I had the energy to join them. I knew it would feel good, but that first two-second shock was enough to keep me from jumping in. Two of them climbed onto the ferry as we crossed. “How’s the water?” I asked.

“Amazing,” beamed the naked woman.

The dripping-wet guy beside her caught my eye and shook his head surreptitiously with a grin. No, it’s freezing, his expression said. I laughed. I was just wondering what the older woman in pastel golf clothes beside me thought of the whole scene, when she jokingly complimented the girl’s butt. So I didn’t dream up this whole magical place, then. It was real, at least for another few precious hours.

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What I did to this sandwich was practically indecent.

We danced to Osunlade’s lovely, unpredictable set with a remarkable amount of unexplained energy. Our “ten-minute walk” turned into two hours of a dusty encore as we enjoyed the first real sun all weekend. At some point I ended up eating a bacon and avocado sandwich that tasted like a thousand rainbows dipped in Thor’s chest sweat, provided by the infamous Charlie Brown. This doesn’t really add anything to the narrative, I just think you should know how good that sandwich was.

As we made our way onto a small hill to survey the crowd, I was fascinated by a girl in mushroom-patterned socks and a straw hat with tiny sunflowers who was simultaneously walking, dancing, drinking a beer, and hooping at the same time. I complimented her when she arrived near us, and she told me about what discovering hula hooping had done for her.

“Hooping is my centre, my meditation, my connection with the universe, where I find myself,” she smiled. “If I feel a negative thought coming, I lose focus and drop it,” she gestured to the hoop. “So it just keeps me centred.”

As I watched people dance and talk and laugh, I tried to spot figures I recognized in the crowd. I thought about the two uncomfortable-looking bro’s I’d spotted the first night who looked like they were utterly bemused at how all their high school bullying victims had managed to all gather together in one place. I smiled, imagining their transformation over the weekend as they become one of us. Swallowed up and neutralized by the hippies, like white blood cells converging in.

I popped the last of my sandwich into my mouth and we began to make our way home.

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 * * *

I like life. A lot. I didn’t use to. But knowing what it feels like to not enjoy life, and having climbed all those hills and won all those battles, I now try to wring as much joy out of it as I possibly can. This has ended up with me sometimes getting a little too excited about the things I get excited about. I’m used to friends rolling their eyes at me and taking my enthusiastic recommendations with a grain of salt. I don’t really care, because fuck it, if I want to have 50 number-one-absolute-most-favourite songs, I will. If I have several best friends, it’s not because I can’t pick, it’s because they’re all the single best people I’ve ever met. Yes, this show will change your life. Yes, that massage was the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. Yes, this cheese is making me reevaluate all my life choices and dearest belief systems in the attempt to reconcile its very existence. Yeah I know it’s from Costco. Doesn’t matter.

The thing is, when you live your life in constant hyperbole like this, even if it’s based on a deep, ineffable appreciation for all that humanity has to offer, it really screws you over when something like Harvest comes around. You’ve used up all your words and there are none left that really do it justice.

But sometimes, even if you want so badly to be able to turn it into words and make sense of it, a feeling is good enough on its own.

Psytrance, a world unto itself

Most of what I knew about psytrance (psychedelic trance) raves before I actually went to one came from this article in Vice:

Psytrance really is a counter-culture in the truest sense. The music is harsh, the clothes are weird, the drugs are strong, the best parties are illegal. This isn’t a scene you can enter half-heartedly; nobody is having their birthday drinks at places like this – it’s too intense, too esoteric for the casual partygoer.

It’s a piece that has always stuck with me since I first read it. I have loved “ethnography for the masses” journalism since before I knew what anthropology was; that fish-out-of-water, Gonzo style, with authors who are able to successfully suspend their WASPy disbelief and experience a new and strange environment with a more-or-less open mind, broadening their view of how life can be lived. Though at one point the above article devolves somewhat into gawkish weirdo-porn—”Look at all the funny clothing! Are these kids nuts or what!”—it hints at something unique about psytrance that I was curious to see for myself.

File 2015-07-01, 1 13 07 AMMy partner and I showed up around 11, dressed in shorts for the beach theme. Blow-up sharks and beach umbrellas hung around the dance floor, which was sparsely populated by a core group of around ten people, mostly men, already dancing hard. Leaning into the intensity of the music, arms pumping and flailing. More people stood chatting and dancing throughout the rest of the club. Everyone looked happy, even if some were too focused on dancing to be smiling. It was a relatively older crowd in here (mid- to late-twenties) than at some other events I’d been to. Some were in classic raver outfits—fur boots, kandi, huge baggy pants, stuffed-animal backpacks, that same sort of neon-sexualised childlike look, like laser-show camoflauge.

“I have no idea what kinda drugs that guy must be on.” My partner pointed to a man who was swaying from side to side with a vacant look and half-open mouth. My guess, a dissociative of some kind. Ketamine, or GHB maybe. A bit too much, either way. But most people seemed clear-headed, if not exactly sober.

A beach ball went flying past my head as I went to buy a beer. The music was good, already stirring up a pretty strong desire in me to dance. We went upstairs to a second level overlooking the dance floor and sipped our beers. A man wearing an “I Believe” alien shirt walked past us and pulled out a small baggie of blue pills. It was done so blatantly out in the open, my partner figured he wouldn’t mind if he asked the guy what he was going to take. They exchanged words I couldn’t hear under the pumping music, and I saw my partner laugh. He came back.

Do a google search for

Thanks, disembodied tangle of arms! (Source)

“They’re not pills. They’re earplugs,” he grinned.

I ended up having a great chat with Derek about the rave scene, after I complimented him on his decision to wear earplugs. He’d been going to dance music events since the birth of acid house in the late 80’s. We watched the crowd stomp around from our second-floor vantage point. Everyone looked a little different, a little unique. Though most of the crowd was white, there were people of all shapes and sizes and configurations of dreadlocks. There were no binary gender categories in charge here. Visually, this was a very different crowd from folks at more popular EDM events. It was the misfit table in your high school cafeteria, all grown up and not giving a fuck. I liked it. I felt at home. These weirdos knew how to party.

“Everything’s changed,” said Derek, as we continued to chat about the dance music scene. “It used to be about the people—the DJ wasn’t the centre of attention, now it’s all about ego…” This wasn’t the case at the events hosted by the organizers of this one, though, he said. He liked events held by these guys. But his words made perfect sense in what has become an increasingly monetized and corporate electronic music scene. The fact that a formerly niche music genre like EDM (contested though the term is) has exploded in North America in the last three years is shaping a lot of how the scene functions today. The effects of this explosion are everywhere. DJs are the new rock stars. Huge EDM festivals are popping up overnight on the map like mushrooms after a rain, so much that talk about market oversaturation has already begun—young people only have so much money to spend on summer festivals, and most can only afford one or two a year (though social media and FOMO are affecting these decisions as well). Celebrity actors-turned-DJs are using their clout to cash in on EDM’s popularity—Hodor from Game of Thrones calls his bookings “Rave of Thrones”, Bryan Cranston made a surprise appearance at EDC a couple weeks ago, and Paris Hilton is slated to DJ at Cabana in Toronto soon—though most of the online buzz around this fact ranges from not taking her seriously, to outright hostility at her “buying her way into the scene” where talented DJs could play instead. (To his credit, Hodor (Kristian Nairn) is apparently pretty good.) Gigantic rave cruises are spawning knock-offs and the Full Moon Parties in Thailand get bigger by the thousands every year. And Superbowl-sized LED screens blast the names of DJs in multicoloured glory as they pose for that iconic shot in front of the ecstatic crowd, arms wide, godlike, drinking in the adulation.

I'M YOUR GOD NOW

I’M YOUR GOD NOW.

Back at the beach-themed psytrance rave however, it was 12:30 am, the dance floor was filling up and a pink-haired DJ who turned out to be my favourite of the night was taking over. No LED screens, no antics, no huge crowd. The dancers cheered him on after a particularly complex bit of mixing. He shook his head and bowed to them, arms out, palms down, as if in worship.

There was an unique kind of unity in the dancing style I saw at this event, different from that seen at more mainstream EDM events. This was very… Well, what you’d have to call ‘frenzied’. It matched the music perfectly. Everyone is in their own little world; there’s less dancing together in tight pairs or groups, more space to move around and be creative. But you can still feel that it’s a collective activity. We’re all still in this together as a group, united by the music and the freedom to just be weird and dance however we want. Interestingly, there was a noticeable lack of sexuality about the dancing here. I wasn’t sure why, but I got the feeling that someone trying to dance provocatively, or any sort of sexual attention-seeking, would be frowned upon and probably mocked. It would be out of place, an unwanted break-in from the mainstream world of bros and Kanye’s “drunk-and-hot girls” that these people are trying to escape. Where they don’t fit in and don’t know the rules, don’t know how to fake it and have rejected the idea that they should have to.

1:50 am.

1:50 am.

However, just as I was thinking to myself, “Everyone is dancing so damn hard, it would be pretty difficult to hit on someone here anyway,” my partner pointed out a hip-humper (a guy dancing crotch-first against a girl) at the front. Turns out she was into it, though. Later on in the night, my partner ended up accidentally interrupting them upstairs outside the bathroom, his hand up her skirt.

At 2:35 am, we hugged Derek goodbye and began our journey home. We weren’t sure exactly what we’d just experienced, but we knew that we liked it. We’d be back for more.

Note: Real names have been changed. These are experiences and reflections based on my current field work. My ideas and assumptions are quite possibly totally wrong, so I happily invite you to comment and change my perspective.


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Find me on Twitter ranting about drug policy, criminal justice reform, anti-capitalism, psychedelics and anthropology: @HilaryAgro